In Ireland, where I live, there is a story of a lost tourist who stops to ask a farmer for directions. The farmer asks him the destination he is trying to reach. After hearing the location, the farmer takes off his flat cap, wipes his brow, looks the tourist in the eye, and says, “Well, if I were trying to get there, I wouldn’t start from here!”
The farmer’s humorous answer captures the folk culture of this beautiful land. While it is not helpful for tourists, there is wisdom for us in the farmer’s answer. Here in Ireland, as in America and the rest of the West, the cultural sands are shifting rapidly under our feet. Last year, Ireland became the first country to legalize gay marriage by popular vote. Though Ireland is one of the last European countries where abortion is still illegal, there is massive pressure mounting to make it legal. These are obvious headline-grabbing examples, but the way we speak to and think about these social issues as Christians shows us what we think about God and His Word. Which brings me back to our farmer’s wisdom: “Well if I were trying to get there, I wouldn't start from here.”
Many Christians and pastors start in the wrong place when thinking about life’s challenges, beginning first with self, personal opinion, what seems right, and what feels good. This kind of self-centered thinking starts with an anthropological center rather than a theological center—a bottom-up versus a top-down hermeneutic. If our destination is a God-pleasing, Christ-honoring, Scripture-shaped mind and worldview, we can’t arrive there by starting with ourselves, our biases, and our sin, trying to make God fit what we want to believe.
In Europe, the idea that Scripture ought to be the lens through which we see and understand the world is mocked, derided, and laughable. Recently, Tim Farron, the leader of a major political party in Britain, resigned as party leader due to the public pressure he was under for views that are shaped by the Bible, views that are seen to be incompatible with a party trying to be liberal and progressive. The country I live in, Northern Ireland, is often chided for being “backwards” and “behind the times” because a greater portion of the populace still holds to traditional values than in other European nations. In pluralistic and secular intolerant communities such as mine, it is more important than ever that we recover and hold fast to a robust understanding of the authority of Scripture.
Paul wrote to the young pastor Timothy:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Tim. 4:1–5)
What was Paul’s remedy for the problem of people not “starting in the right place” when it came to addressing life’s challenges? How did Paul confront people wandering off to find teachers who suit their view? He charged Timothy to preach the Word. Martin Luther understood this problem five hundred years ago when he wrote: “Scripture alone is the lord and master of all writings and doctrines on earth. If that is not granted, what is Scripture good for? The more we reject it, the more we become satisfied with man’s books and human teachers.”
As a church planter, I spend a lot of time at the intersection of culture and Scripture, working to bring the gospel to bear on our quickly changing culture in a way that is culturally contextualized. But there is also a risk that I might be unhealthily shaped by the very cultural moments I’m trying to understand. I start with some of the same questions that my secular neighbors have, but where God has provided clear answers, I must answer clearly or be in danger of becoming like those whom Paul describes in 2 Timothy 3:7 as “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.”
The words of Carl F. Henry are insightful: “No fact of contemporary Western life is more evident than its growing distrust of final truth and its implacable questioning of any sure word.” This “growing distrust” is expected in society, for the Scriptures tell us as much. But we must not allow it to creep into our hearts and our churches, and certainly not into our pulpits.
We must avoid the appearance of godliness while denying its power. We must “do [our] best to present [ourselves] to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Approach the Word with humility and your community with gentleness, love, and kindness, seeking to understand their doubts and unbelief even as you hold out the words of life with steadfast confidence because “we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us” (Titus 3:3–5). Like Jesus, we pray, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). We start as we mean to finish; with God in His Word.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on April 4, 2018.